Friday, November 28, 2014

Vice news published a great documentary that gives a face to Bahrain's protesters and a view from the ground. Reporter Ben Anderson spent time in Bahrain earlier this year with protest groups, and this video is the result. For more, check out an accompanying article published by my friends at

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Saudi-Iranian Détente and the Bahrain National Dialogue

This post appeared in its original form at

News outlets and commentators are abuzz recently regarding combat strategy against the Islamic State (IS) and the involved Middle East players. Analysis revolves around the United States, Iran, Syria, the Europeans and others and their role in defeating IS.
To the south, traditional Sunni power Saudi Arabia recently held discussions with their Shiite foil, Iran, regarding regional security cooperation. You heard right: the Middle East’s two biggest rivals now want to work together in a limited capacity. The Middle East’s focus has been on the battle against IS; however, a Saudi-Iranian détente could have an effect on the turbulent situation in Bahrain

A History of Influence

Separated by less than 200 miles of water, Bahrain and Iran have been entangled since the former’s independence in 1971. With a Shiite population of roughly 75%, Bahrain has long been ruled by the Khalifa dynasty - Sunnis who represent a definite minority among Bahrain’s Muslim population. With Bahrain’s oil subsidies dried up by the late 1970’s and its Shiite population living in squalor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini selected Bahrain as one of the first targets for its exported Islamic revolution.
Khomeini’s forces backed Bahrain’s Shiite revolutionaries as they attempted a coup in 1981, embedding indefinite suspicion in the minds of the ruling Khalifas regarding Bahraini Shiites and their supposed revolutionary backers. As a result, discrimination against Bahraini Shiites is commonplace, and since the suspension of the parliament in the mid 1970s, representation of Shiites at the national level, representing Shiite interests, is non-existent.

Saudi and Iranian Hands in the Pot

Such conditions make Bahrain ripe for discontent and protest. As a participant in the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, Bahraini Shiites declared a “Day of Rage” to protest their mistreatment and demand equal representation in the eyes of the law. In an act of solidarity to their monarchical compatriots, the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent reserve troops to the island to bolster the Bahrain Security Forces and maintain order and security in the kingdom. A National Dialogue was set up in order to create understanding between the government and protesters, with hopes that grievances would be solved and Shiites would gain some form of equality in Bahrain, but the talks have gone nowhere.
Throughout the 2011 uprising and in the years since, the Bahraini government played the Iran card with reckless abandon. This tactic achieves several goals. Labeling Bahraini Shiites as Iranian proxies ensures support from the aforementioned Gulf monarchies, as they assuredly want to preserve the stability a long-term Sunni monarchy in the region provides.
Also, it ensures support from one of the island’s biggest clients: the U.S. government. Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, responsible for maritime security in the Gulf region and a longtime adversary of Iran and its military. Claiming Iranian involvement in their native insurgency ensures American support for the regime, as they also desire stability in a country housing thousands of service members and their families.
Last but not least, blaming Iran takes pressure off the Bahraini government. Using Iran as a scapegoat takes the spotlight off the government’s longtime treatment of Shiites and their heavy-handed response to the protests, which left dozens dead and hundreds more behind bars for dubious reasons.
Accusing Iran of meddling in the affairs of other Middle Eastern countries is hardly without reason. Iran has been trying to export the Islamic Revolution for 30 years, and their botched coup in Bahrain is reason enough for mistrust in the regime. Add that to decades of involvement in Lebanon via their proxy Hezbollah, and their support for the Assad regime during the Syria crisis, and it’s easy to see why Iran is such an easy target, especially in Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia also has a vested interest in spreading influence throughout the region. They have always viewed Iran as a rival for influence, especially in states with large Shiite populations - hence Saudi involvement in Bahrain. They have also interfered regularly in Yemen, and tend to force influence in order to maintain the status quo and block any governmental change that is challenging to their regional hegemony.

Détente and Dialogue
Once more, Iraq has become a Middle Eastern battleground. Saudi Arabia and other moderate Sunni states oppose IS, as does Iran, backing their Shiite neighbors against radical Sunnis. In a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Saudi Arabia and Iran find themselves fighting the same battle. In that light, Iran’s foreign minister arrived in Riyadh for meetings with his Arab counterpart on regional cooperation late last month. The consequences of cooperation between these two states could be monumental, especially for Bahrain.
As I’ve outlined above, Saudi Arabia and Iran are both vying for influence in Bahrain and backing parties on either side of the conflict. The National Dialogue, formed following the uprisings, is the government’s attempt to reach common ground with the opposition regarding their claims and grievances. The Dialogue, however, has been less than productive. In its first year, the Dialogue moved slowly, with no agreements reached. At the beginning of this year, and the government was criticized for basing discussions on a Sunni-Shiite divide, when opposition and outside entities claimed the discussions were based on grievances of the people with the regime.
The government’s claim they are facing a Sunni-Shiite divide is a perfect example of Saudi-Iranian influence on the process. Multiple discussions within the dialogue have focused on Iranian influence on the opposition, despite a glaring lack of evidence. A Saudi-Iranian détente is the perfect opportunity to rid the Dialogue of talks of Iranian and Saudi influence in the process and focus on the issues at hand. With an agreement in place on Bahrain, the talks will no longer be marred by suspicion of outside actors and the government will be forced to negotiate from a place of legitimate grievances, not blaming stalled negotiations on a nonexistent Iranian invisible hand.

Bahrain has dealt with outside influences on its internal politics for years, and it came to a head in 2011. Now, with the future and stability of the country at stake, the government continues to sing the same old song about Iranian influence. A Saudi-Iranian détente is the perfect opportunity to jump start the Dialogue and move forward with real reform. 

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Who's Afraid of ISIS?

There's plenty of talk in the blogosphere and among network television regarding the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS). Reason editor Nick Gillespie weighs in with an article on The Daily Beast, and as usual, proves Libertarian ideas are not suitable for the foreign policy realm.
Gillespie spends most of the article railing against the "threat inflation" in American politics, and for the most part he's not wrong. TSA certainly doesn't make us safer from terrorism, and labeling every potential extremist group as the perpetrators of the next 9/11 is counter-productive.
While it is certainly true that Americans have no stomach for another protracted, possibly unwinnable war, ignoring threats to international security, especially those as  widespread and financially sound as ISIS, is unwise and downright dangerous.
Years ago, during the wonder years of the Clinton administration, another extremist group borne of a regional conflict appeared on the world stage. Throughout the 90's, al-Qaeda carried out various attacks against Americans and American targets, culminating in the attacks of 9/11. Initially, the U.S. government held the same opinion of al-Qaeda that Gillespie holds for ISIS: on the radar, but not a transnational threat, and certainly not a threat to the U.S. homeland.
Gillespie maintains that sheer numbers of opposing fighters are enough to defeat ISIS. Apparently 250,000 poorly trained Iraqi troops, many of whom have already dropped their weapons and retreated, are more than enough to defeat ISIS, whose numbers are much lower. The U.S. had a much larger footprint in Vietnam than the North Vietnamese Army, and struggled mightily before withdrawing decades later. Believe it or not, tactics matter much more than troop numbers, as any Iraq veteran could certainly attest.
In fact, it is the policy of doing nothing that allows groups like ISIS to flourish. The al-Qaeda example not withstanding, the U.S. withdrew from Iraq with an Iranian puppet in power who isolated the Sunni minority, giving ISIS a foothold in Iraq's north and west. Also, the Obama administration drew an imaginary red line in Syria, which was ignored. As a result of policymakers standing idly by, ISIS grew stronger and stronger and are now a force threatening regional and international security.
Looking around for a war is never the answer. However, standing on the sidelines while terrorists flourish and flaunt the world order also isn't an answer. Gillespie may want to reconsider his ideas before ISIS becomes too much to handle.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Iranian Asymmetrical Warfare and Millenium Challenge 2002

This post appeared in its original form at the Center for International Maritime Security.

Tension between U.S. and Iranian military assets in the Arabian Gulf are nothing new. Confrontations between Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and U.S. Navy vessels in the Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Gulf of Oman are a regular occurrence for forward-deployed ships. Iran knows it cannot match the U.S. in a conventional confrontation, and focuses on an asymmetrical style of warfare to increase damage and costs of confrontation to the U.S.
In 2002, a joint war game exercise, known as Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02), took place to gauge readiness in the event of a conflict with a hostile Middle Eastern nation. The results were disastrous for the U.S., with over a dozen ships destroyed and thousands killed or wounded as a result of asymmetric and unconventional naval warfare. 14 years later, Iranian asymmetrical warfare can still have a devastating effect on U.S. and allied forces in the Middle East. Unconventional warfare has been the Achilles Heel of the U.S. military for decades, and more gaming and training are needed to enhance U.S. capabilities in an asymmetric environment.

A Combination of Threats

Following their lackluster performance during Operation Praying Mantis, in which the U.S. Navy laid waste to several conventional naval vessels, Iran began to focus on asymmetrical warfare. Tactics include Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC), covert civilian craft, naval mines, and submarines.
The IRGCN utilizes swarming tactics as its method of choice. IRGCN bases are situated in various locations along Iran’s Gulf coast, from the Strait of Hormuz to the Northern Arabian Gulf. This is a key tenet in swarming attacks: packs of small attack craft covertly leave their bases at various times, all heading for the same target, i.e. a Carrier strike group operating in the Gulf. While this dispersed tactic may result in a weaker attack that is easier to repel, it is also much more difficult to detect, as the swarms don’t operate in a large formation. Also, craft equipped with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles can fire their payloads at a greater distance, ensuring survivability and destruction of their target.
Just a relaxing day sailing on the Persian Gulf. 
Iran currently has the fourth-largest inventory of naval mines, as well as various platforms for deployment. Mines are a successful tool in the Gulf: USS Tripoli and USS Princeton struck Iraqi mines in the Northern Gulf during the Gulf War, and USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian-laid mine during the Tanker Wars of the 1980s. Iranian mines also dispatched large numbers of civilian merchant vessels in the same time period.
Iranian mines are largely cheap and unsophisticated. However, some Chinese and Russian variants, including the EM-52 multiple influence mine, are much more sophisticated and can be used in waters up to 600 feet - plenty deep to make the Central Gulf a dangerous place.
A majority of bottom-dwelling mines are designed for shallower waters. In some places, depths in the Strait of Hormuz are between 150-300 feet and are prime locations for these types of mines.
While the mines may not be sophisticated, deployment tactics are much harder to detect. IRGCN small craft are capable of laying mines, as are dhows, fishing boats and submarines. These platforms can carry up to 6 mines each and can be resupplied at sea. Mine laying platforms disguised as civilian craft would not raise suspicion on the part of Coalition forces while submarines can be quite difficult to detect by surface or air assets.
Iran operates several different types of submarines, all of the diesel variety. The Kilo-class are Soviet surplus that are nearing the end of their service life, but still require respect, especially in an asymmetrical warfare environment. Kilos can carry several dozen mines, laying them covertly beneath the waves and avoiding the overt detection by surface assets that endanger the mission of mine laying dhows and small boats. Kilos would also require an increase in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) platforms in theater for sub identification and prosecution, such as submarines and air and surface assets. They would also increase the standoff distance of high-value assets such as carriers and troop landing ships. These platforms would most likely not venture too close to a known hostile submarine operating area with few defensive weapons.
Iran’s mini-subs are another part of the undersea warfare threat worth considering. There are at least three separate classes of mini-sub in the Iranian inventory, all diesel operated. Their small size makes them difficult to detect, and their ability to operate in shallow waters makes them a perfect tool to target vessels in the littorals, such as amphibious assault ships and patrol craft, and any convoy of warships or shipping making its way through the Strait of Hormuz. They can also participate in mine laying operations  in shallower seas as a support asset.

Millennium Challenge 2002

MC02 was framed as a Red vs. Blue game depicting the invasion of a smaller Middle Eastern nation by a much larger and more capable adversary. It was the largest war game ever devised; 13,000 troops, aircraft and warships spread throughout the world, at a cost of $250 million. While it looked much like the upcoming invasion of Iraq, the tactics employed by Red closely resembled the nonlinear and asymmetric tactics of the IRGCN.
The Red forces, led by Marine Lieutenant General Paul van Riper, utilized several unorthodox measures and tactics to exploit the weaknesses of the Blue forces. When electronic warfare aircraft fried Red team communications sensors, van Riper used coded messages voiced from the minarets of Mosques at prayer times. This signaled the armada of civilian boats and light aircraft underway in the Persian Gulf to take action, conducting swarm and suicide attacks on U.S. warships and firing Silkworm missiles at high-value assets, claiming two amphibious assault ships and an aircraft carrier. At the conclusion of the attacks, 16 ships were sunk and thousands of servicemen were dead or wounded. Instead of digesting the results and using them to refine tactics and strategies in the face of a nonlinear threat, MC02’s controllers simply reset the problem – ensuring a Blue victory and “gaming” the most expensive and important war game in modern history.
Was anything learned from the surprise ending of MC02? It appears not. Iran’s tactics are nothing new; they have been using asymmetric warfare since the Iran-Iraq war. Iran’s weak Navy isn’t a new development either; most ships are decades old with few modern capabilities. What Iran does have, however, is a military strategy with a basis in unconventional warfare. Asymmetric tactics, like those described above, coupled with a decentralized command and control structure and semi-autonomous unit commanders make Iran survivable in the event of a first strike.
Unfortunately, the U.S. thinks of nations with weak conventional militaries as no match for the technological and modern behemoth that is the U.S. military. This was evident in Iraq and Afghanistan, where insurgents with little resources utilized out-of-the box thinking and nonlinear tactics to inflict heavy damage on U.S. forces, culminating in eventual retreats. U.S. strategy rests on technological and conventional dominance as well as engaging in non-traditional conflicts using traditional strategy and doctrine.
While Iran’s bluster regarding its eventual destruction of the U.S. fleet shouldn’t be entertained, the threat posed by Iran should be. Nonlinear and suicide attacks from the sea, increasingly capable long-range anti-ship missiles able to reach any vessel in the Gulf, and unconventional communications and command tactics are nothing to brush off. More exercises like MC02 are needed to adequately gauge the readiness of the U.S.’s land, sea and air forces to any asymmetric conflict with Iran. Where there are tactical and strategic gaps, a shift in training is required to prepare our forces for this type of conflict. A Blue defeat in a war game isn’t an embarrassment; it’s a chance to lean forward and become a well-rounded fighting force able to meet any challenge.
The chances of a major conventional conflict with another nation are extremely rare. Unconventional land and sea combat has been the norm for decades, and the U.S. needs more gaming and training in order to cope with the nonlinear threat.

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Iraq and ISIS: It's All Our Fault

President Obama's naivete on the foreign policy front is showing with the deteriorating situation in Iraq. He campaigned on promises to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it appears the administration wasn't actually serious about ending the wars, just pulling out completely. This blind obedience to domestic politics endangers America's world standing and emboldens our enemies.
The President campaigned hard on ending our two costly wars abroad, appealing to the moderate base that was tired of 10+ years of war, casualties, and frivolous defense spending during a recession. Unlike most politicians, he did live up to his promise - a complete pullout of Iraq and an impending pullout of Afghanistan. However, the war didn't end just because we left; the administration dropped track on Iraq and the Middle East in general, allowing terrorist groups to grow in strength, the Iraqi government, intelligence, and military structure crumble. Iraq is now backsliding into chaos, and it's all our fault.
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) began as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in the early days of the Iraq War. During the Syrian conflict, they transformed themselves into an insurgent group attempting to overthrow the Assad regime. Now they're back in Iraq, taking full advantage of the weak security situation and attempting to overtake Iraq to establish their medieval Islamic caliphate.
How did we get here? The end of the Iraq War wasn't an ending; it was a pullout and abandonment. All U.S. forces returned home, leaving behind a few thousand workers at the U.S. Embassy and scattered throughout the country. The U.S. intelligence apparatus that was so adept at running cells and infiltrating insurgent groups during the war, disappeared. The U.S. government helped install a hardline Shia President, who has alienated the Sunni minority and installed his cronies in the police force and military instead of well-trained professionals.
As a result, there is no intelligence apparatus to provide early warning of an attack or infiltrate the moderate and radical Sunni villages. The military was poorly trained, and have dropped their weapons and retreated in the face of an attack. ISIS has overtaken Mosul and is quickly heading south towards Baghdad. There's no reason to think they will not succeed.
Thank goodness the Obama Administration made an Iraq pullout such a priority. There are no more U.S. casualties, but Iraq has slid into a chaotic civil war, and its Shia government is now backed by Iran. Domestic politics and voter attitudes shouldn't shape foreign policy. True foreign policy professionals need to make real and hard recommendations to the President that override the desires of the domestic political operatives who are only interested in votes. The outcome in Iraq remains to be seen; and stand by for a repeat in Afghanistan. There's no reason to think it won't happen there as well.

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Friday, April 18, 2014

NATO: It Includes Europe, too

Russia's expedition into eastern Ukraine has Europeans, especially those in the east, wringing their hands with worry. While the decades-old North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) provides for common European and Allied defense from Russian advances, most European governments have discarded it as a Cold War relic. That needs to change. 
Since the end of the Cold War, NATO's purpose has been in question. A leftover from the heady days of Sputnik and Able Archer '83, it has been neglected as European nations sought greater ties with new Russia. Western nations drastically cut defense spending and pulled troops out of European bases. Only the U.S. keeps a respectable number of forces in theater, and the common defense of Europe has become more of an American mission than a European one. 
Americans are war weary; 14 years of combat will do that. That's why NATO members need to step up and again provide for their own defense. Not entirely, of course; the U.S. should contribute to show Russia that there are consequences if NATO is to be challenged. But it's not our territory and it's not our backyard. Europeans taking charge of their own defense is what NATO is all about, and the U.S. doesn't have the funds or the political will to fight others' battles anymore. If Europeans are serious about standing up to Russia, they should start by increasing military spending and becoming equal partners in NATO once again. 

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tomahawks No More? Not So Fast

This article appeared in its current form at the Center for International Maritime Security. 

The most recent Defense budget, announced this month, outlined plans to shrink the number of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) for use by U.S. Navy ships and submarines. And the cuts are drastic - $128 Million in Fiscal Year 2015, reducing the number to just 100 next year and zero in 2016. Phasing out weapons systems in favor of new systems capable of meeting current and future threats is a normal course of action. Cutting a highly successful program when there is no replacement on the horizon is shortsighted and threatens to eliminate the Navy’s offshore strike capabilities.

TLAMs have a long and decorated service history. They were first deployed onboard Iowa Class Battleships, as well as integrated into the Navy’s Vertical Launch System (VLS), installed on Destroyers and Cruisers, as well as submarines. During the Persian Gulf War, Navy surface combatants struck targets within Kuwait and Iraq throughout the conflict. Superior performance during the Gulf War made TLAM became a preferred stand-off weapon throughout the 1990s, and was utilized during Operations Allied Force and Deliberate Force in the former Yugoslavia.
In the War on Terror, TLAMs have been used to strike al-Qaeda training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan, as well as during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Most recently, over 120 TLAMs were fired by US and UK assets at targets in Libyan territory in 2011.

TLAMs provide the capability to strike deep into hostile territory, eliminating communications, air defense, and command and control from a safe distance, assuring successful secondary strikes by air and ground forces. Further developments have made TLAMs even more versatile – they can be prepped and ready for launch in under an hour, and upgraded models can receive in-flight targeting updates and loiter in-air until ready to strike.

Despite its success, replacement is inevitable. The platform is over 30 years old, and it is only a matter of time before a new system, upgraded with the latest technology and engineered to meet today’s threats, replaces the reliable TLAM. However, the new defense budget is instead stripping the U.S. arsenal of a proven strike capability and leaving it gapped for upwards of ten years.

The Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). LRASM is a much-needed weapon to replace the aging Harpoon anti-ship missile and maintain superiority in surface warfare and Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD).  It has also, for some reason, been mentioned as a replacement for the TLAM. This isn’t a viable replacement. LRASM has a range less than half of that of TLAMs, and isn’t designed for deep strike into hostile territory. Even as a stopgap measure, LRASM isn’t an optimal strike weapon and in any case won’t be operationally ready until 2024. As a result, the U.S. will be without a primary strike weapon for the foreseeable future. 

Operating with a tight budget, lawmakers are looking for any way to trim defense spending. Eliminating a weapon that is a proven success and vital for offshore strike demonstrates a complete disregard for warfare requirements and unnecessarily places warfighters in harm’s way, without a vital support weapon. Tomahawk won’t be around forever; but it’s a vital weapon that has pulled its weight for 30 years. The U.S. already has outdated weapons systems and requires upgrades to keep pace with a rising Chinese military. Cutting more weapons systems and eliminating strike options in the name of fiscal restraint is the definition of shortsighted.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

It's Just Not the Same

Russia's advance and (probably illegitimate) annexation of Crimea stunned world leaders. Since the initial invasion, there have been countless comparisons of Russia and Vladimir Putin to some of history's more nefarious characters and events - most notably Hitler in the late 1930's and the former Soviet Union. However, its hard to see much similarity with either one.
Crimea's vote for annexation was almost certainly not without help from Moscow. There was absolutely no way Putin lets Crimeans hold a free election on this topic; he's not exactly known for exercises in democracy, and a lost election would be nothing short of embarrassing.
Putin, however, at least put on a show; The Nazis definitely didn't. Their march across Europe was bloody and violent, the opposite of Russia's advance into Crimea.
Also, comparisons to the Soviet Union and a "new Cold War" don't exactly hold water. The Cold War was a struggle between democracy and communism; not opposition to territorial annexation. The West's problem with Russia's have nothing to do with ideology and a larger struggle for the hearts and minds of the world. Instead, they take issue with territorial grabs and a violation of international norms. This isn't the start of a new Cold War, it's the world standing up against geopolitical bullying and aggrandizement.
Russia's move into Crimea could be the start of something new, however. Russia is most likely looking for a role on the global stage; the one they left after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Will antagonizing the West and flexing muscles in Eastern Europe make Russia a player once again? Probably not.

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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Russia Will Feel the Pain

There are a lot of unanswered questions surrounding Russia's invasion of Crimea. It may turn into a shooting war, Russia could decide to take all of Ukraine, or even more of Easter Europe. However it turns out, they may have hurt themselves more than they hurt Ukraine.
U.S. or NATO military intervention is highly unlikely, but their involvement is now certain. Chances are, the U.S. will pursue economic sanctions against Russia, which will definitely hurt considering their current economic situation. And with Ukraine's current turmoil regarding western and Russian loyalties boiling over, this will certainly push them into the western camp. Even Russian apologists in Ukraine can't look past an armed invasion into Ukrainian territory. NATO will be quick to strengthen ties with Ukraine following this episode.
There will be even more trouble on the horizon for Russia. Their old pal Georgia is pursuing NATO membership, and in order to shore up allies in the Black Sea, their membership will most likely be accelerated. If Ukraine tends west, and Georgia becomes a NATO member, the Black Sea will not be a welcoming place for Russia.
In the end, a shooting war isn't good for anyone. Ukraine will be in shambles, and Russia will be severely depleted, as Ukraine isn't a pushover like Georgia. Russia will be an international pariah, with wide-ranging and crippling sanctions. The west certainly shouldn't be involved militarily, but it's time to stand up to Russia and hold them accountable for their actions.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Secondhand Combat

According to a new piece at War is Boring, Iran has a new half-baked idea up its sleeve. The Iranian Navy plans to re-activate one of the RH-53D minesweeper helicopters left to rot in the Persian desert by U.S. Special Forces during their failed raid on the besieged U.S. Embassy in 1980. Through shady sources, Iran was able to keep their existing helos running for some time, and are apparently ready to use one of the discarded choppers soon; we may even see it in the skies above the Arabian Gulf in the near future. If it actually works, that is. Watching Iran's Air Force is like watching a low-rent Cold War battle film, and their most powerful warships, allegedly heading for the U.S. coast, got shellacked by the U.S. Navy in the 1980s. The more Iran tries to flex its muscle and stand up to the U.S. and allied forces in the Gulf, the sadder it looks.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

China's Blue Water Ambitions

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) will deploy ballistic missile submarines on deterrence patrols in the Pacific Ocean later this year, placing them within striking distance of Alaska, Hawaii, and the western United States. This report isn’t too alarming – U.S. Navy ballistic subs regularly deploy on deterrence patrols, and during the Cold War, Soviet boomers regularly parked off of America’s coasts with little fanfare. The significance of these deployments have less to do with China’s second strike capability, and more to do with extending their reach beyond their regional coastline and moving towards a true blue-water navy.
Recently, the PLAN’s operations focused their own neighborhood. China’s naval force, until recently, comprised of craft better suited to Anti-Access/Area Defense (A2/AD) in the seas surrounding China and their claimed territory. Quiet diesel submarines, along with hundreds of missile boats and patrol craft, make up a bulk of the Chinese fleet. The Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea and the DF-21D Anti-Ship Cruise Missile (ASCM) round out China’s robust A2/AD doctrine. Focusing on such a strategy has its advantages – China certainly has an advantage against some form of U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia that may threaten China, including a move on Taiwan.
While China’s salami-slicing and regional territorial disputes with its neighbors are rightfully garnering attention in the region and throughout the world, they aren’t the only moves up its sleeve. Since the mid-1990s, China has tested its ability to conduct blue water operations, gaining the experience and training they sorely lack. Multinational exercises with European navies and worldwide port calls led to Chinese destroyer deployments to the Gulf of Aden in support of anti-Piracy missions there. Protecting Chinese shipping interests in the Middle East is just the beginning of PLAN blue water deployments.
PLAN ships have already deployed within Southeast Asia, including an exercise last week in the vicinity of the Malacca Strait, apparently searching for alternatives to the strait in the event of a regional crises which threaten strategic interests. With East African piracy winding down and West African piracy ramping up, Chinese intervention in West Africa is just down the road. Nigeria produces 5-6% of the world’s oil, and China is keen to protect their economic and shipping interests, just as they were in the Gulf of Aden. This doesn’t mean another international coalition to battle piracy; rather, international cooperation and aid to West African nations. While the U.S. has been slow out of the gate on this front, China is already delivering naval patrol vessels to the Nigerian navy. It appears China is more eager to gain influence and protect interests in the region than the U.S., meaning maritime patrols and port visits to the area are not out of the question, especially if China longs for an influential and worldwide deployable naval force.
West Africa, the Pacific deep, and Straits of Malacca are not the end for PLAN deployments. Chinese forces may soon make an appearance in the Arabian or Red Sea to project power and match wits with the U.S. Navy. While deployment experience and combat training are far behind the U.S., these moves are a step towards gaining legitimacy and experience in worldwide operations. U.S. Naval Intelligence projects a Chinese blue water navy by 2020; they are well on their way. 

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